Guest post by Margaret Slattery
Since Katie and I share two passions—camping and couponing—I offered to share some of the tips and lessons learned from our recent trip out west to seven national parks. Our family of five includes three kids ages 12, 9, and 7, and we are all fairly seasoned car campers. However, this summer we took it to the next level.
For 14 days, our family drove 2000 miles to explore some of America’s most spectacular venues: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Sequoia, Kings Canyon,Yosemite, and Death Valley. We never skimped on experiences and managed to stay within our budget of $3500. Here are our expenses in a nutshell; I’ll go more in-depth with how we saved in future posts.
Since Knoxville to Grand Canyon is about 1800 miles, you’d need an extra 4-5 days to drive vs fly. When Allegiant opened direct flights to Las Vegas for $69 each way,we jumped on them. Now that’s just the lure you in fare. Once we paid for taxes and fees, five checked bags, and the privilege of sitting together, RT tickets were about $200 a person. Total: $1054.
We rented a Nissan Pathfinder through Budget that allowed unlimited miles within the states we would be driving—an important detail to check. We were packed in like a puzzle with zero extra space, but we managed. Total (including gas): $661.
Since most of our nights were spent at campsites within national parks, we usually only spent $20-$25/night. For our first night, last night, and one in the middle, we booked moderate hotels. By one week in, we were all ready for a pool, showers, and laundry facilities. Total: $627.
We purchased most of what we needed in two shopping trips: one at the beginning, and one mid-way. We bought ice and firewood every other day and ice cream as treats occasionally. The few times we did go out to dinner equaled the amount we spent on groceries, reminding us you really do save money by preparing your own meals. Total: $734.
ACTIVITIES & SOUVENIRS:
The nice thing about national parks is that once you’re in, there’s usually little extra expense to enjoy the park. We’re used to no entry fee to the Smokys, but most national parks charge $20-$30 entry. The annual pass for all parks runs $85. This year, if you have a fourth grader, s/he can get the whole family in for free. Ask your teacher when you return to school.
Your first stop to every national park should be the visitor center. They’re like mini-museums, they list loads of free programs, and suggest hikes suitable to various skill levels. The Junior Ranger Programs are awesome for elementary age kids. Shuttle buses providing often the easiest transportation inside parks are also free. Our one splurge was horseback riding: $200 for the family. We let the kids pick out small souvenirs at each place. I recommend the tokens you can collect or decks of cards from each park. Total: $418.
Note: I did not count costs for camping gear required for a trip like this: a tent, sleeping pads & bags, cook sets, hiking shoes & poles, camelbacks, etc. because we had those from previous trips. If you’re starting from ground zero, expect to invest another $1000-$1500 for good gear, but hey, it’s an investment for lots of trips. And I would suggest if you’re new to camping, start small with a weekend getaway close to home and borrow gear from a friend.
Margaret is a freelance writer in Knoxville, TN. She writes and produces for HGTV and has been couponing since 2009.